The Man Who Spoke Snakish


Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu

The Man Who Spoke Snakish (Novels, Estonian)
Published by Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2007, pp. 381

Somewhere near the realms of fantasy and science fiction there exists a much more thrilling and allegorical form of writing, bending the rules of the genre to suit itself: Atwood’s admonitory novels, Vonnegut’s attempts to reach outside the bounds of reality and time, Bradbury’s philosophical allegory encased within a science-fiction story, and so on… To say of Andrus Kivirähk’s novel The Man Who Spoke Snakish (“Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu”) that it is a fantasy story in the Pratchett mould of humorous pseudo-history is simply to underestimate it. It is an allegory about the fading of the ages and the vanishing of worlds, and what is more, laced with a good dose of black humour.

The story is simple: on the fringes of medieval Christian Europe lives a forest people, whose members have so far survived thanks to their knowledge of the snake-words, and the adders are their brothers, as are the bears – although they are dim-witted and too lustful. This forest people is gradually losing its identity; they are moving to live in villages, eating tongue-numbing, tasteless bread, honouring their overlords the crusading knights, dreaming of becoming monastic eunuchs or snuggling up with the knights. Leemet, the main protagonist, whose life we follow from birth to death, is ultimately the last one who knows the snake-words, the last one who knows the dwelling-place of the mythical giant Frog of the North, who was sent to defend the land, but who has fallen into an eternal sleep. It is a different kind of history, a different kind of Europe, to the one we know: here it is not the knights conquering the land from the forest-dwellers as in the battles chronicled in the history books, or in Hollywood pseudo-history, but one people melting away of its own accord, fading away into new habits, customs, currents of fashion. Leemet’s story is a tragic one, and if it were not peppered lavishly with Kivirähk’s malicious humour, it would be a dismal and fateful tale, which ends in mad berserkery and blood-letting, in which Leemet and his legless, flying, fanged grandfather embark on a revenge mission against the knights and the stupid villagers. Yet it is fruitless: no-one is left alive in the forest, the snake-words are forgotten, the land sinks into decay.

This could be the story the disappearance of a small nation (such as the Estonians), but to take in the broader general picture, an allegory of the disappearance of an old world, its magical skills and its people. Kivirähk is an Estonian national treasure, the most loved Estonian writer or the past decade or so. Of course he is a humorist, a joker in the best sense of the word, but perhaps one can only speak of the most painful things by smiling through tears. 

Text by Jürgen Rooste

Translated by Christopher Moseley

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